Rail Transit Accident in the Bronx

At the beginning of December, a Metro-North train heading south into Grand Central Station derailed as it took a sharp turn, according to an article in the New York Daily News.  Four people died in the train accident, and an additional 63 people suffered injuries with 11 of them critical.  While we never anticipate transit accidents, train crashes often come as a particular shock.  What happened to this Metro-North train? Are train accidents more common than we think?

Details of the Metro-North Train Derailment

Was the derailment the result of mechanical or human error?  According to the train engineer, he tried to apply the brakes but told his supervisors that the “train didn’t slow down as it took the curve just north of the Spuyten Duvil station.”  The accident occurred around 7:20 a.m. on Sunday, December 1.  While the train engineer claimed that the accident must have been a mechanical failure, other sources argue that the train crash was “definitely human error,” as “the speed was excessive,” according to the New York Daily News.  In fact, investigators have concluded that the train conductor of the Metro-North train that derailed last week in the Bronx may have fallen into a state of “highway hypnosis” before the time of the accident. This drowsy state of consciousness can be caused by long monotonous drives.

The train initially departed from a station in Poughkeepsie just before 6:00 a.m. on Sunday.  In the crash, all seven train cars derailed, and one of the cars actually “flipped down a riverbank, coming to rest just inches from the water where the Harlem River meets the Hudson.”  Surviving passengers reported that the train seemed to be travelling particularly fast, and it did not seem that the train would be able to make it safely around the curve.  The speed limit for this area of the train tracks is 30 mph, and trains typically slow down from about 70 mph to safely take the curve.  The National Transit Safety Board (NTSB) is currently investigating the crash.

Transit Accident Statistics: Is it Safe to Ride the Train?

According to statistics from the NTSB, rail accidents account for a very small number of the total transportation fatalities each year.  In 2011, for instance, the NTSB catalogued a total of 34,434 transportation fatalities:

Highway fatalities:

            With the highest number of fatalities - roadway accidents resulted in a total of 32,367 fatalities in 2011 alone.  Passenger cars represented the highest number, while buses represented the lowest.

  • Passenger cars: 11,981
  • Light trucks and vans: 9,272
  • Pedestrians: 4,432
  • Motorcycles: 4,612
  • Pedalcycles: 677
  • Medium and heavy trucks: 635
  • Buses: 54

Marine Fatalities:

With 800 fatalities in 2011, marine fatalities accounted for the second-highest number of transportation-related deaths.  Most resulted from recreational boating, while only 5 commercial-passenger fatalities were reported.

  • Recreational boating: 758
  • Commercial fishing: 25
  • Cargo transport: 12
  • Commercial passengers: 5

Rail fatalities:

With far fewer fatalities than those on the highway, fatal rail accidents actually accounted for the third-highest number of transportation fatalities in 2011.  Yet in these accidents, trespassers represent the highest number of deaths.

  • Trespassers and non-trespassers: 499
  • Light, heavy, and commuter rail: 230
  • Employees and contractors: 24
  • Passengers: 6

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) collect statistics each year to conduct analyses of railroad safety.  According to the FRA’s preliminary 2013 report, railroad accidents actually appear to have declined steadily since 2010.  The year 2010 saw more than 8,800 crashes, while 2013 has seen only 8,327 to date. The number of fatalities, however, appears to have increased just slightly over the past several years.  While we do not think about the dangers of rail travel as frequently as we do with highway transportation, trains can be dangerous and accidents can lead to severe injuries.

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